Handle criticism, don’t let it defeat you.
What leaders do matters to the people who follow them.
When a pastor preaches a poor sermon, makes a bad decision, or does something embarrassing, people are affected by it.
Often these people will express their feelings to your face, which can be helpful. Some of the best advice I’ve received has come from people who have been frustrated with me.
Criticism hurts. How you respond to criticism can heal.
“Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.” – James 1:2-4 CBS
Criticism comes in different styles. It may:
- Come in the form of personal correction for things you need to do better.
- Come in the form of suggestions or ideas for ways the church should get better.
- Come in the form of hurt because of how someone was harmed, or felt harmed.
Here are 7 questions, two life-giving perspectives, and some words of wisdom to help you handle criticism with less hurt and more growth.
7 Questions to Ask Before you Respond to Criticism
Thank the critic for sharing their thoughts with you, and ask them to give you time to think about it. Before you say anything more, work through these 7 questions to sort out what’s going on.
1. What part of this is true? And what should I do about it?
If you’re stinging because it’s personal, resist the temptation to complain to someone about it. Instead, go workout, then grab your Bible and take it to Jesus. Pour out your complaints to your Friend and Master.
Then talk it over with a confidant. Maybe your spouse, your mentor, or an old pastor friend in another city.
Remember that an ally is not a confidant. Your Board and staff should be allies, but they may not be able to handle being your confidant. So don’t dump the criticism and your complaints about the critic on them.
Give yourself a day or two, to get over the sting and discouragement, to sort out the truth and see how to move forward.
“I will definitely inhale the criticism…but I don’t always swallow the criticism.”
2. Hurt people hurt people, so how is my critic hurting, and how can I help him?
Sooner or later every pastor gets criticized for a lack of “deep teaching,” in their sermons.
I’ve found that this particular criticism usually stems from some other place of disappointment. The person may be spiritually stagnant and relying on the preacher to rescue him or her from their personal spiritual doldrums. There may be personal pain that gets translated into frustration at the church’s alpha male.
Most often, people who appear dissatisfied are lonely.
Whatever the cause, painful sermon feedback can always be harnessed to help the preacher improve. And if the person is lonely from lack of church friendships, that’s an issue in your church’s health that deserve attention.
You might consider befriending this critic yourself.
I once preached a sermon that illicited a scathing email from a newcomer to our church. She criticized the content of my message in a way that was so far off the message itself that I suspected there was something deeper to her pain. Turns out, I was right.
I invited the lady and her husband to lunch, and listened.
During the meal I discovered that they had begun attending while I was away on my annual writing break. The staff member who had preached during my absence had somehow led her to believe that he was the pastor of the church. My critic was in pain, not because of my message, but because she thought that I had somehow come on the scene and usurped the staff member she had started to bond with. Once she got to know me, she decided she liked us both and happily stayed at New Song until the military moved her husband to his next duty station.
Don’t let criticism from a hurting person go into your heart, but mentally put it in a folder on your desk. Focus on your loving interaction with the critic and deal with the point of the criticism later as warranted.
3. How important is this issue to the health of the church?
Some criticism is less about you – your ability or character or what you shouldn’t have said – and more about how your church functions.
Leaders sometimes come across as critical because they can see a preferable future. If the criticism comes from someone who wants to make things better, ask if they will help bring about the solution.
And congratulations, you have just turned an difficult conversation into a new leader.
If you’re hearing the same concern from more than one person, for the sake of your church’s health, it’s time to do something about it.
4. How easy would it be to make the changes being suggested?
Seriously consider if the idea your critic has suggested is viable.
Use the Decision Making Grid to evaluate the feasibility of the suggestion.
- If it’s not too hard to do, and it would be an improvement, go for it.
- If it’s not helpful, skip it.
- If it’s valuable, but hard to do, put the idea on a planning agenda for further consideration.
And tell your idea-bringing critic that you’re seeing what you can do about it.
5. What would improve if I implemented this suggestion?
Do a little strategic thinking and dream about what it would look like if you did what the critic suggests.
Make a list of the things that you can see would improve.
You may have to dig to find a suggestion for improvement in the criticism. It may be that all the critic gives you is the downside of the complaint and it’s up to you to find the upside.
6. What might be hurt if I implemented this suggestion?
Now do a pre-mortem and think about what might go wrong if you implement this suggestion. It’s not a win to fix one thing if you’re harming something else in the church.
Again, make a list, only this time list the things that might be hurt if you do what the criticism proposes.
Like when you respond to the complaint that you don’t have a program for kids on Wednesday night. When you think about unintended consequences you’ll consider the ramifications that a Wednesday program would have on the children’s volunteers on your already-stretched weekend team.
This is where the perspective of other staff or key leaders come into play. They’ll see things that you might miss.
7. What does my wife think about this criticism? Does she see some truth in it that I am missing?
I love the old story of the pastor who asked his wife, “Honey, do you think I should put more fire in my sermons?” She replied, “I think you should put more of your sermons in the fire.”
Not a true story, but good for a laugh the next time you need one in the pulpit.
Your spouse knows you better than anyone. When you feel ready, ask for her perspective on the criticism. Ask her to help you understand and grow from it.
And then listen carefully to what she says.
Two Perspectives to Help you Deal with Criticism
These 7 questions will help, and here are two more perspectives to handle criticism with less angst.
1. Consider the Source of the Criticism
When it comes to criticism, you want to weigh what is said and by whom, rather than counting the number of people saying it.
Critics often build their case by saying, “Alot of people are thinking this way.” They want to present as forceful an argument as possible, when in reality, it may be that they and their best friend had one conversation about it.
You can ask for specific names if you want, and then count how many people actually feel this way, but it’s better to weigh the wisdom and influence behind the criticism.
For instance, if a Board member, staff member, or Elder or Deacon is offering this criticism, their voice counts.
Weigh the criticism as you ask your seven questions. Pray. Resist obsessing. And use what is said to build your character and the church.
And if what was offered was done in a kind manner, with good intentions, be sure to thank your critic and ask God to bring you more people who will speak truthfully.
2. 48 Hour Rule for Preachers
Preachers, like authors, poets, and songwriters, pour their souls into their sermons. We’d rather avoid feedback that hurts, but asking people not to criticize isn’t good for them… and it isn’t good for us.
Early on I developed a principle that has served me well: you can bring on your criticism, but not on Sunday. Please wait until Tuesday.
I’ve found that I’m not so tender and more able to receive and grow from the feedback after a couple days go by.
Keep the 48 Hour Rule in mind, Pastor, as you want to correct your staff, particularly your worship leader. Give him 48 hours to distance himself from the weekend, too.
And now, some wise, poignant, encouraging words about criticism…
These great thinkers and leaders will encourage you about criticism:
“Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”
“You can’t let praise or criticism get to you. It’s a weakness to get caught up in either one.”
– John Wooden
“The trouble with most of us is that we’d rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.”
– Norman Vincent Peale
“I have yet to find the man, however exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than under a spirit of criticism.”
– Charles Schwab
“Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.”
– Frank A. Clark
“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”
– Winston Churchill
“He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.”
– Abraham Lincoln
And don’t skip this next quote because it’s long. It’s the best of all, and will help you appreciate criticism when it comes your way.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly.
So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
– Theodore Roosevelt
Criticism is never fun, but it come with the territory for church leaders. Make it your goal to learn the tools that will help you handle criticism without being overcome by it.
We have a resource called the “7 Good Questions that will Help you Handle Criticism” Worksheet. You can find it in the Pastor’s Personal Toolbox. It’s a library of our best tools and resources — all in one place. Tap below to learn all about it, and get the worksheet that goes with this article.
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Start Here to learn more about the resources available for you at PastorMentor.